If the grand story of the Mahabharata is the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, then the Bhagavad Gita is “Street Fighting Man.” It gets all the ubiquitous radio play; maybe you’ve even heard it in a commercial, definitely in a Martin Scorsese movie. You likely know the words, even the harmonies, without having had to try at all to memorize them. The story of Draupadi is one of the less played tracks, perhaps “Salt of the Earth,” tucked away on the end of the second side of the album. Let’s throw it on the turntable and take a listen...
It is often said that everything comes in threes. From the strongest geometrical symbol (the triangle) to the number of lights in a traffic light; from the Hanson brothers to Destiny’s child to Freud’s theory of the personality (id, ego, superego). There is something undoubtedly resonant about the number three. It strikes us as a strong, and perhaps complete, number.
Christians are not the only religious tradition to speak of a trinity of deities. Most with even a cursory knowledge of Hinduism will have heard of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahma is referred to as the god of creation. Vishnu is the god of preservation, and Shiva is the god of destruction.
Every deity in the Hindu tradition has a nirgun, or formless, expression (without attributes or characteristics) and a sagun, a formed, expression (with attributes and characteristics). The images that you see in artistic renderings is the sagun, while the nurgun is the quality, essence or vibration that the symbolic rendering represents. Another way of putting this would be to say that deities are archetypal; they are personified expressions of fundamental metaphysical qualities. To arrive at an experience of the formless (nirgun) aspect of these qualities, we utilize symbols (sagun) to direct us toward that experience. Thus, the deities are important tools in helping us to connect with these transcendental qualities, but they are perhaps best seen as guideposts, pointing us in the direction of bringing those qualities to life.
Granted, this is not the position of some branches of religious Hinduism. According to many, the deities should be seen as personal and not simply allegorical or archetypal. In our consideration here, however, it seems that if we externalize these deities and make them personal (“there is”, for example, “an actual blue god named Krishna”), we run the risk of losing the forest for the trees. In the final adjudication, the qualities that the deity archetypes represent are qualities within us. By acknowledging and cultivating these qualities within our lives, we become flexible in the face of the sometimes dramatic changes, situations, and events that we experience.
The nirgun and sagun expressions of deities corresponds smoothly with the “as above, so below” symbolism of the Tarot’s Magician archetype. With one hand pointing toward the stars and the other hand gesturing toward the earth, he reminds us that at all levels of existence are to be found these qualities of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Let’s look again at these deities and their corresponding qualities:
Brahma, the creator: creation, manifestation, rebirth, reorientation
Vishnu, the preserver: persistence, love, sustaining a good thing, perseverance
Shiva, the destroyer: dissolution, recycling, shedding what isn’t serving you, letting go
It is important to note that Shiva’s destruction is not an obliterating, negative destruction, but the good, necessary kind of destruction - the kind that conditions the possibility of future creation. Relatedly, then, these three qualities are not aspects of a linear timeline - for example, seeing Brahma as Genesis, Vishnu as the time in between (including the time we are in) and then Shiva as the “last days”. Instead, the wisdom of the Eastern tradition reminds us that time is cyclical. We are always cycling from Brahma to Vishnu to Shiva and back to Brahma, and so on and so forth, at all levels of experience.
Let's look at some examples...
We see this process easily in the passing of days. A twenty-four hour day is born; it expands between the boundaries of night; and then it dissolves into sleep to be born again in the morning. Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva.
A yoga practice also expresses these qualities. We are born into a sixty- or a ninety-minute class by warming up the body and setting an intention (Brahma). We proceed through the arc of a sequence, telling a story through pose and breath (Vishnu), and then finally we dissolve slowly through the cool down to that final resting place of savasana (Shiva). Even the meaning of the word savasana, “corpse pose”, points toward this theme of rebirth (from Shiva into Brahma) that the symbol of an asana sequence represents.
When we sit down to meditate, we are often invited to abstract ourselves from the stream of thinking to observe thoughts as if they are passing clouds in the sky - taking form, floating by, and then dissolving back into the horizon. Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva.
The wisdom inspired by an internalization of this trinity teaches us the inevitable truth of flux and change. By meditating on how these deities are present in our lives, we make peace with the moments of creativity, of stasis, and of destruction as moments to be affirmed and not denied. This wisdom is welcome in a culture where attachment to forms of identity is the sin qua non of life’s meaning. We all want to know who we are.
The truth is that who we are is a changing thing, at least at the phenomenal level of Reality. What remains the same is the stage on which Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva play out the eternity of their cosmic dance -- the primordial ground of Being.
Surya, the symbol of Hanuman's biggest mistake (confusing the sun for a mango) turns out to be his greatest teacher. The wisdom of this story invites us to consider a time in our lives when we leapt for something that we didn't fully understand, only to find out it was not what we expected. We took on a relationship, or a job, or a situation, or an experience that was overwhelming and that left us feeling burned and broken. Sounding familiar?
As values and concepts shift and change over time, those who “discover” new ways of thinking and seeing are often terrified at first by their discovery, because it means they have to give up who they think they are. The status quo of one’s identity is comforting and hard to just let go of. Also, with almost every radically new way of seeing or doing things, there is a reaction by those who don’t want to lose what they’ve become comfortable with. They would rather live with the old way than live in a more truthful way.
I recently spent four days with friends and family at my first yoga retreat in Port Orchard, Washington, literally five minutes from where I grew up. As it happens when you spend time with people you haven’t seen in a long while, one of the key ways we connect is through stories. We tell tales that directly or indirectly remind us of our common origin, of our shared experience. And even if these stories are unique to each family or friends group, there is always something universal or archetypal about them. They are stories about love or heroism, foolishness or loss - experiences about as universal as being in a body.
In our Western cultural climate, we are mythologically lost at sea. We pride ourselves on being a society without myth, as we consider ourselves grounded in reason, fact, and rationality. But ironically, recognizing ourselves as a people without myth has become our myth. It has become the story we tell ourselves about who we think we are. The no-myth myth satisfies what every myth satisfies: the condition of communicating what a particular culture at a particular time values and holds dear.